Thoughts on Reloading – Part One

One of my earliest memories of my Grandpa Bud involved sitting on an old metal stool inside his backyard shop.  Surrounded by gun parts, tools, reloading components, and the myriad other items Grandpa had collected over the years, I would watch in wonder as he took bullets, brass, primers, and powder, and married them into completed ammunition.  Occasionally, he’d allow me to work the press, the manufacturer of which I can neither remember nor find.

Even through my early teens, I looked at reloading as akin to rocket science and quantum theory.  As I began to “grow up” and realize I knew less about pretty much everything than I once believed, I used my new-found humility to begin to pry and prod Grandpa’s brain for information relating to reloading.  Coupled with an RCBS reloading kit, a birthday gift from my Mom and Dad, I used Grandpa’s instruction to slowly begin to understand the reloading process.  And like most other bodies of knowlege, the mystery of reloading slowly faded to a better, more comfortable understanding of the process.

Today, I no longer purchase factory-loaded ammunition for any of my centerfire rifles, though I’ll still drop vast amounts of cash on the should-be-gold-plated shotgun offerings.  Professionally, I’m blessed with an ample supply of pistol ammo, though I feel for those who have to auction off their internal organs to purchase same.

I suppose the obvious question stands:  Why should anyone reload?  There are several reasons and most are valid.  Some folks reload in bulk to save money.  Try buying a thousand rounds of .223 Remington for a few range trips with your AR-15 variant and you’ll see what I mean.  Others reload to milk every bit of conceivable accuracy out of a given rifle.  I must admit I fall (in part) within this group.  There is much to be said about the confidence granted to the rifleman who knows their ammunition is range-capable of printing itty-bitty groups.

Still others who choose to invest time and money at the reloading bench do so out of a sense of craftsman pride.  There is something significantly satisfying about hunting with ammunition you’ve “crafted” for a given rifle.  And still more pride is garnered when a clean, ethical shot is made using same.  I think this is my primary motivation in reloading, and I can say with pride every game animal I’ve taken in the past eight years has fallen to ammunition crafted by me.

Oregon Goat ala Thomsen Handloads

And so, my next series of hunting journals will relate to my process for reloading centerfire rifle hunting ammunition.  I should emphasis, I will only be presenting MY methods.  I am more than certain other processes exist.  Additionally, I suspect I will omit steps some would deem crucial and will include those some would label superfluous.  It is not my intention to present the definitive guide to reloading.  Merely, I’ll present the way I do things and hopefully explain my justifications for same.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to add an obligatory disclaimer.  First, the opinions expressed in this journal are mine alone.  You’re results might vary.  Also, make sure you consult the appropriate reloading manuals prior to starting reloading yourself.  Always follow the guidelines set forth in the manuals and stay within the listed max charges.  Some of the aspects of reloading can be dangerous if not done correctly and with a modicum of common sense.  As such, be careful.

As with any hobby in which something is created from either nothing or many things, the tools we use to reload ammunition are certainly worth consideration.  For any given tool used in reloading, I have had the opportunity to purchase several brands.  Some I have found to be of lesser value than their packaging, while others have given me years of consistent, reliable use.  And of course, those are the tools which I’ll relate to you.

RCBS Rock Chucker

You’ll first need a press.  If you’re searching for your first press, I’m sure you are already aware there are several currently offered.  I have had the opportunity to use presses from RCBS, Dillon, Lyman, Lee, and Hornady.  All of these companies make good presses, but if you want a solid, reliable single-stage press from which you will get years of service, I recommend  and use the RCBS Rock Chucker.  You can find them new for around $150.00 or included in the RCBS Supreme Master Reloading Kit for about another $200.00 or so.

The RCBS Rock Chucker  is made of heavy-duty cast iron.  Coupled with its O-frame configuration, it is as solid a press as you will ever bolt to your reloading bench.  The RC’s ram has a four-inch stroke, which is long enough to reload pretty much any caliber, save those of .50BMG length.  The Rock Chucker is set up to take any 7/8″-14 threaded dies.  A priming arm is included, though I do not use it.

I like the Rock Chucker for its simplicity and solidness.  Mine has spit out thousands of rounds without a hitch.

Redding Dies

I am an unabashed fan of Redding reloading dies.  I have used offerings from Hornady and RCBS, but have found the Reddings to hold slightly tighter tolerances.  While a beginner could easily get by with full-length resizing and standard seating dies, I generally purchase an additional neck-sizing die and forgo the standard seater for their Competition seating die.

The Redding Competition seating die allows for very fine seating depth adjustments by the use of a micrometer located at its top.  This allows for changes in seating depth measured in .001″ increments.  In addition to the tighter tolerances under which these dies are manufactured, they have a bullet guide which mates to their seating stem precisely.  While I use this type of die primarily for the ease by which seating depths are doctored, I have also demonstrated measurable increases in finished round uniformity, which translates into better accuracy afield.

Redding dies are generally not the cheapest and the price of the Competition seater will likely cause your wallet to snap shut.  That said, I subscribe to the “buy-once-cry-once” school of thought and have enjoyed the use of these dies for many years.

Redding Decapper Die

Speaking of dies, there is one I believe gets little attention from the reloading public.  I am a strong advocate of using a decapping die to remove the spent primers from fired brass casings.  Reloading is all about creating and maintaining consistent, tight, repeatable tolerances to ensure the same type of finished ammunition is produced.  Why, then, do some of us take our (ideally) clean, precision manufactured sizing dies and cram filthy, dirty, gritty fired casings into same?  I don’t.   I “decap” (or deprime, rather) spent casings using a die dedicated for this task.

This particular decapping die is made by Redding, but I suspect most any company currently manufacturing reloading dies would likely make an adequate replacement.

Sinclair Case Trimmer

After you’ve run your cases through the appropriate sizing die, you’ll likely need to trim them to a standard length.  RCBS, Redding, and the like all make perfectly usable and adequate case trimmers.  And in truth, some of those companies’ offerings will do the job much faster than my personal choice.  That said, I use and recommend the case trimmer manufactured and sold by Sinclair International.  As a company founded and marketed toward the competitive benchrest shooting community, Sinclair’s products generally hedge toward tighter tolerances and away from mass production.

In truth, this case trimmer is actually of the original Wilson case trimmer design.  Sinclair, however, has the exclusive rights to produce it.  Additionally, Sinclair offers a micrometer adjustment as an aftermarket addition to the Wilson trimmer.  For the same reasons discussed above relating to the Redding seating die, I like the use of micrometers to tightly control the length of the given process.  In this case, the micrometer provides the reloader the ability to adjust trimmed case length to .001″.  That’s a fair amount of control, my friends.

Cases are singularly inserted in a case-family-appropriate case holder and held as perfectly perpendicular to the trimming face as possible.  The micrometer adjusts the overall trimmed length and the lack of a pilot allows you to avoid messing up that primo, freshly-sized case neck.

If you’ll take a look at the photograph above, you’ll also note a separate handle accessory on the right side.  Another of the benefits to running a Sinclair trimmer is the ability to chamfer the inside of the case mouth using the same tool and tolerances.  Sinclair offers chamfer tools under the Wilson name which replace the case trimmer handle and blades with a separate tool for imparting either a 30- or 45-degree chamfer to the inside of the case mouth.  Chamfer is important, as it allows you to seat bullets with a bit more uniformity and less resistance.  As uniformity is key, being able to take as much of the human element out of as many of the reloading processes as possible is beneficial.  Using this type of device over a handheld tool removes just that much more of the human element.  I dig it.

Sinclair Flash Hole Deburring Tool

Speaking of case prep, I recommend some sort of flash hole deburring tool.  The flash hole is the opening in the primer pocket at the head of the case.  It allows the spark from a struck primer to enter the body of the case and ignite the powder therein.  Some companies who produce brass components for reloading make this opening using a drill.  Generally, these holes are uniform and, when viewed from the inside of the case, without burrs or irregularities.  Most companies, however, use a punch to make the flash hole.  Punches leave burrs on the inside of the flash hole, which are argued to cause irregularities in the manner in which the powder is subsequently ignited by the primer.  Whether this is or isn’t a real problem, I trim the inside of the flash hole using a Sinclair Flash Hole Deburring Tool.  It takes a couple turns per case, but the end result is a uniformed flash hole.  I’ve not had the opportunity to quantify the benefit of this step, but given several top competitive shooters do it, I do too.

Micrometers

You will definitely need a micrometer if you’re planning on reloading.  Here’s a place where I don’t generally have a strong opinion.  That is, most companies currently producing micrometers for reloading are putting out pretty good products.  Yes, you can spend $300 and get a very nice one.  But I suspect you would be equally well served with one from RCBS, Redding, and the like.  I’ve shown two above.  One uses a dial while the other is digital.  The dial works great and has the added bonus of not requiring batteries.

Case Cleaning the Easy Way

You need to clean your cases.  It is a given.  No one should ram a filthy, dirty case into a sparkling clean set of precision reloading dies.  Neither should you take the same cases and run them through your rifle.   Its just wrong.

Now, there are a few ways to clean cases.  The most popular (for reasons lost on this author) involves the use of a tumbler and cleaning media.  Usually made of walnut shells or corn cobs ground down, media is vibrated by the tumbler causing it to rub against the cases.  Though the cases do, in fact, get clean in this manner, you still have to sift the cases to remove them from the media.  And invariably, you will get errant pieces of media stuck in the flash hole or hidden inside the case.

As I am a fan of the work-smarter-not-harder school of thought, I clean cases differently.  Iosso makes a liquid cleaning system that is about as easy as it gets.  Put the cases in a mesh bag, drop them in the liquid for about five minutes, remove, rinse, and you have sparkling clean cases with no residue.  The liquid can be reused several times, though I suspect it probably doesn’t last quite as long as media per cleaning session.

Snot in a Can

There are several methods for lubricating cases prior to sizing.  Some of the more popular involve the use of aerosol sprays or rolling cases on a lubricated block or pad.  I have been using sizing die wax for a few years now and I am a huge fan.  It seems to allow for more fluid, frictionless sizing and is a bit easier to surgically apply.  Redding makes a great one I now use exclusively.  Their Imperial Sizing Die Wax is one of those less-is-more products, as a simple sweep around the case body and dab at the mouth are all you need to run even the most stubborn case through a sizing die.  Plus, it comes right off with a quick dunk in the Iosso cleaner after sizing.

Sinclair Priming Tool

The last piece of gear I’ll talk about in this journal facilitates the marriage of primer and case.  Priming tools are designed to seat primers into the case’s primer pocket.  As the tolerances are generally pretty tight in this process, a precision tool is important.  While there are numeric measurements which dictate the depth a primer is seated, much of the priming process is done by feel.  As such, you want a tool that will allow you a fair amount of control over the process.

Some reloading presses come with priming tools built in.  These use the press lever as the force by which the primer is seated.  I have a hard time with this concept, as it doesn’t allow you the precise feel you need to seat primers.

Most companies offer handheld priming tools and, again, they are all pretty good.  If you want the very best, however, look to Sinclair again.  Their priming tool is as good as it gets.  They are not cheap, but they are made to very tight tolerances and they’ll last forever, offering the utmost level of precision and “feel”.

There are other tools I use during the reloading process, but this should give you a good idea regarding those which I have a certain predilection and affinity.  Stay tuned for my next journal, in which I plan to talk a bit about selecting components based on your shooting goals.

Stay safe!

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About the Author

Matt Thomsen

Matt Thomsen

Matt Thomsen routinely spends over seventy days afield each year during Oregon's hunting seasons. In addition to chasing bear, deer, elk, coyote, waterfowl, upland game, and the occasional sage rat or two, Matt was fortunate enough to draw one of seven annual tags and harvest a Rocky Mountain goat in Oregon in 2008.